Pilates for RA

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the soft tissue (synovium) that lines the insides of the joints. The synovium makes a fluid that lubricates joints and helps them move smoothly (synovial fluid). Rheumatoid arthritis causes the synovium to thicken and become inflamed, creating a buildup of synovial fluid around the joint and resulting in swelling and pain.

Unlike people who have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative condition caused by the breakdown of cartilage and bone within joints, people with RA may also have symptoms and issues that are unrelated to their joint pain. Fatigue and persistent body aches are common among people who have RA. Symptoms of RA range in severity and may come and go in flare ups, alternating with periods of relative remission, when swelling and pain decrease or disappear.

Who is affected by RA?

Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, with about three times as many women as men being affected. The condition may develop at any age but is most commonly diagnosed in patients between the ages of 25 – 60 years old. Researchers have not been able to find a cause for RA but believe there may be a genetic component.

What are treatment options for people diagnosed with RA?

While rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that currently has no cure, different treatment options exist to help patients manage their symptoms.

The goals of RA treatment are to:

  • Stop inflammation (put disease in remission)
  • Relieve symptoms
  • Prevent joint and organ damage
  • Improve physical function and overall well-being
  • Reduce long-term complications

Treatment options include:

  • Medications that treat symptoms
  • Medications that may slow the progression of the disease
  • Diet and lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation and stress during flare ups
  • Regular exercise to keep joints strong and mobile
  • Natural therapies that include supplements and meditation
  • Building a strong, positive support network

How can Pilates help patients manage their RA symptoms?

Pilates is a low-impact workout that can provide many benefits, like better postural balance, spine stability, flexibility, strength, better breathing, improved joint strength and mobility, and movement control.

Targeted exercises build core strength that helps patients with RA maintain better alignment and posture, which in turn relieve pressure on joints, especially hips and spine. People who have been diagnosed with RA are prone to having weak core muscles due to degenerative spine changes, muscle inactivity, and maybe chronic pain.

Workouts also include exercises that focus on proper leg, arm, and shoulder movement. The strength and flexibility gained during these workouts help patients with RA better handle flare ups and can lessen the risk of loss of mobility.

While Pilates cannot prevent flare ups, people who have been diagnosed with RA will experience overall improved health, mobility, strength, and flexibility by participating regularly in a Pilates program. Instructors will tailor exercises to keep patients moving without placing undue pressure on affected joints. Exercises on the mat use the patient’s own body weight for resistance and are a great way to get started with a Pilates routine. Other equipment such as the Reformer, Springboard, and EXO Chair use springs under tension to add resistance; these springs can be adjusted to allow people with RA to stretch, strengthen, and move according to their level of mobility. Over time, patients will see increased ability in movement, control, strength, and flexibility.

RA affects everyone differently but Pilates can benefit every body!

Image from Everyday Health

If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and are experiencing mobility limitations, you may feel uncomfortable participating in group exercise settings. But building a positive support network is just as important to maintaining health and managing symptoms of RA. Pilates is a great way to enlarge your community while getting regular exercise! Make time to meet with your instructor before your first session to privately discuss any concerns you might have and how exercises may be adapted to provide the most benefit to you. Instructors want to help you reach your health goals and will design workouts around your specific capabilities.

Your instructor will evaluate your current range of motion, joint function, overall posture, strength, and flexibility. He or she can make recommendations on the most appropriate class setting for you, from private sessions or small-group classes to larger group classes. If you are currently experiencing a flare up, make sure to let your instructor know. He or she can avoid exercises and positions that may aggravate your pain.

RA affects everyone differently but Pilates will benefit every body! Read about the difference Pilates has made in the lives of two women diagnosed with RA: Kari O’Meara and Kat Macfarlane. Find a studio near you and keep moving! Your body will thank you.

Cherney, Kristeen. “Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on the Body.” Healthline. 20 July 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/rheumatoid-arthritis/effects-on-body#1
Listfield, Emily. “The Surprising Ways Pilates Can Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms.” Everyday Health. 28 June 2017. https://www.everydayhealth.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/living-with/how-pilates-can-ease-ra-symptoms/
W, Jenn. “The Best Rheumatoid Arthritis Exercise Program.” RA Pain Management.https://rapainmanagement.com/rheumatoid-arthritis-exercise/
“Instructing Clients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Studio Pilates International. 14 Nov 2018. https://www.studiopilates.com/education/instructing-clients-rheumatoid-arthritis/
“Rheumatoid Arthritis.” American College of Rheumatology. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Rheumatoid-Arthritis
“Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20353648
“Rhematoid arthritis–causes, symptoms, treatment.” Southern Cross Medical Library. https://www.southerncross.co.nz/group/medical-library/rheumatoid-arthritis-causes-symptoms-treatment
“What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?” Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis/what-is-rheumatoid-arthritis.php